6 Things that “The Avengers” Can Teach Writers About Narrative

6 Things that “The Avengers” Can Teach Writers About Narrative

I’ve seen The Avengers twice thrice and enjoyed it both all three times. However, don’t let all of the explosions and CGI-enhanced fight sequences fool you: It’s an extremely well-constructed movie that contains many lessons about how to tell a story. So here’s what The Avengers can teach writers about narrative:

Note: Spoilers ahead!

1. Establish your characters thoroughly

The Avengers had a bit of an advantage here in that it had 5 separate movies to set up the action. However, that doesn’t mean we need to write a Tolkienesque tome to flesh our characters out. During the course of the story, we should understand the motivations of each character, and the different ways in which they meet their goals. In the case of the movie there’s one main goal – defeating Loki and his army – but each person does it in different ways and for different reasons:

  • Black Widow states that closing down the Tesseract portal is not a case of having superior weapons – a fact realized by arguably the physically weakest member of the group. She is a spy, not a soldier, which means she is the one best suited to closing the portal instead of fighting Loki’s army.
  • Tony Stark manages to get a fresh Iron Man suit by using his casual ease and love of booze to distract Loki. His flippancy and nonchalance – which normally get him into trouble – allow him to rearm himself.
  • Agent Coulson shoots Loki right in the chest before he dies. He manages this because even though he’s holding a huge frickin’ gun, he knows that Loki doesn’t consider him a threat.

In all three cases, the characters manage to turn their weaknesses into advantages, and we understand those weaknesses because of who they come from.

2. Make each scene fulfill multiple purposes

When we first see Iron Man, he’s welding an arc reactor to an underwater cable in order to power his newest building. When we first see Black Widow, she’s at the mercy of Russian mobsters, but quickly turns the tables. Later on, it’s revealed that Loki’s plan is to 1) unleash the Hulk so that he can wreak havoc in the helicarrier, and 2) use the arc reactor’s energy to kickstart the Tesseract portal.

And what allows those things to make sense within the context of the story? The two introductory scenes mentioned above, of course. In addition to introducing each character, one informs us that the Stark Tower is a huge energy source, and the other shows us that Black Widow gathers valuable information by having her foes underestimate her.

This is reinforced during the large confrontational conversation that happens in the helicarrier’s lab. Instead of having a string of independent scenes where Character A argues with Character B, we have Characters A, B, C, D, and E arguing with each other simultaneously over several different plot points. Not only does this scene kick off the requisite “break-up” before the team truly bands together, but it’s a masterpiece of showing how various layers of resentment build up within a group of people.

3. Give equal focus to each character at consistent intervals

This lesson also applies to plot threads, and not just to characters. The Avengers masterfully cuts between several different characters so that each one gets screen time at consistent intervals. This is made easier by grouping them within individual scenes and by varying those groupings, but I’m pretty sure that no character is absent from the screen for more than 20 minutes at a time. Interweaving different plots and characters accomplishes several things:

  • It builds up tension by showing how the various plot threads interact.
  • It helps the audience remember what each character is doing and how different characters relate to each other in space and time.
  • It makes sure that the audience doesn’t forget about a character – more importantly, it reassures the audience that we haven’t forgotten about the characters we’re creating.

4. Make each character distinct

The Avengers’ action scenes are well-choreographed and easy to follow. One of the reasons for this was that the main characters were easy to distinguish from one another. Tony Stark didn’t look, act, or sound like Loki, who didn’t look, act, or sound like Captain America, and so forth. Each main character had a distinct physique, costume, and personality so that they were instantly identifiable.

This might seem elementary, but it isn’t. How often have you read a book and had trouble remembering which character was which? Was it because their names started with the same letter? Was it because their physical descriptions were too similar? A recent episode of the “Writing Excuses” podcast addressed this when a plot outline by Mary Robinette Kowal introduced two characters that were nearly identical:

[Howard] Do they have to be two cats? Is that a mythological thing?
[Mary] No, actually this is… Here we go into beginning writer errors. Those are my cats.
[Brandon] Ah. Okay.
[Howard] Mary and Sue.
[Dan] Yes.
[Mary] Yeah. Basically. It’s Marlo and Maggie. There becomes… Because I had two cats, later there are plot reasons that there need to be two of them. But no, when I was writing this, it was… It was a way to connect with my niece and nephew.
[Howard] Yeah. There’s nothing wrong with that, when that’s the mission of the story. My editorial brain would say, “Eugh, the cats’ names are too close, they both look like cats…”
[Mary] Yeah. No, I completely agree that they should be different.

If a Hugo-award-winning author agrees with this advice, it’s probably worth following.

5. Give each character a moment to shine

This sounds simple but it isn’t easy to do, especially in a story with such a large cast. However, each character needs at least one moment that forges a strong connection with the audience, whether that’s through humour or profound emotion.

Whedon generally opts for using humour, and The Avengers allows every primary and secondary character (with the possible exception of Maria Hill) to say at least one funny line. Either that, or the line, while not necessarily funny, packs a huge emotional (and sometimes physical) wallop. Just remember this secret, Cap: The Hulk is always angry.

6. Know your audience and anticipate their questions

Comic book fans always ask each other which hero is the best. Who would win in a fight? Which weapon is the strongest? The Avengers doesn’t answer this question because the hero-on-hero fights end in a draw, but Whedon sure has fun trying. He also broaches the question of what would happen if The Unstoppable Force hit The Immovable Object. (Answer: A huge flash of light and a satisfyingly resounding gong noise.)

We wanted to see heroes face off against each other, and Whedon dealt that in spades. We also wanted to see Loki mercilessly and completely smashed. During both showings, the single biggest audience reaction came when The Hulk thrashed Loki against the floor again and again. The laughter was so deafening it reminded me of this anecdote about Annie Hall.

During the climactic battle, Hawkeye stands on a rooftop firing arrows at various targets; during the fight, his quiver rotates the holster containing his remaining arrows so that one is always ready to be drawn. I leaned over to my fiancé and asked him a question: “What happens if he runs out of arrows?”

Sure enough, Hawkeye does. In response, he plucks one from a nearby corpse, places it in his holster quiver, and changes the arrowhead attachment so that he can shoot out a grappling hook to safety.

The point in both cases is that Whedon knew his audience. He knew what they wanted, and what questions they were going to ask. Then, he set about fulfilling those expectations as thoroughly as possible. This is the kind of knowledge that all writers need to develop: An awareness of what questions their audience will ask, what answers they’ll accept, and what actions will satisfy them.

Notice a pattern?

Most of the lessons in this article talk about the importance of character development. Joss Whedon took the time to do several things that make a story appealing no matter what the medium:

  • Create characters that are distinct and compelling, with clearly stated goals and weaknesses.
  • Give each character the amount of attention they deserve.
  • Let each one have a humourous or cathartic moment.

So what about you? How do you think The Avengers succeeded (or failed) as a piece of storytelling?

Update, May 17th: The AV Club has an excellent article out about how The Avengers is so good because it follows the rules of storytelling for TV. Check it out.

11 thoughts on “6 Things that “The Avengers” Can Teach Writers About Narrative

  1. Sharon

    Great post, Christina! Though I haven’t seen the Avengers yet, it sounds like it did indeed succeed as a piece of storytelling and has satisfied the fans. Cheers! Tweeted and shared this post.

    1. Christina Post author

      Thank you both, Nancy and Sharon! I went into the first showing with really low expectations, and the movie completely blew me out of the water. It manages to intertwine all of the narrative tricks above with great action and a sense of wonder and fun.

  2. Jo Schneider

    I saw Nancy’s share of this post. I also went in to this movie with low expectations, and ended up loving it! It’s an amazingly told story about the characters. Big names, big personalities, cool powers…I’ve been trying to figure out how they did it since I walked out of the theater. Great job breaking it down.

  3. M.T. Albright

    Great post. I love Whedon’s work (Firefly rocks), but until I read your post, Christina, I didn’t know why!

    Whedon is also great at surprising his audience, even if it looks like the plotline or outcome seems set in stone. (Lots of good guys – of course they will beat the bad guys.) For instance, he is not afraid to kill off major characters – I think this is why his movies and tv shows are a bit different from the main stream and have an edge. He also surprises for humor: One scene finishes with the Hulk and Thor standing together looking satisfied over the battlefield after a battle they just won. Hulk sighs with satisfaction and slugs Thor out of the picture. Hilarious, totally in character, and totally left field.

    Great discussion piece, Christina.

    1. Christina Post author

      Hello M.T. and Jo,

      Thanks for the kind comments! M.T., one thing I agree with you about is how Whedon manages to subvert expectations. Case in point: Everyone expected the phrase “Hulk smash” to show up in the movie, and it did. But taking the words out of the Hulk’s mouth and turning them into a direct command *to* the Hulk *from* Captain America? Genius. I’m pretty sure all the comic fans in the audience mentally went “Yeah!!!” when it happened.

      Jo, I can’t take all of the credit for this analysis. In particular, the insight about making each character physically/visually distinct comes from a video made by an online movie reviewer called “The Cinema Snob.” (Check out http://thecinemasnob.com/2012/05/04/midnight-screening-the-avengers.aspx) He talks about how the movie has a greater sense of visual logic and coherence than other action movies – the “Transformers” movies are used as contrasting examples.

      Edit: It turns out the video I linked above wasn’t the one I was thinking of. Will have to wait for the fiance to be around so I can confirm which one he watched.

      1. Prakarn

        to Cap: We’re not soldiers! . The way RDJ said it, & the conextt used, made it stand out for me.On another note, I hope the Cap sequel has a significant portion that takes place prior to Avengers, because there needs to be more of his coping with the modern world that was absent from The Avengers (other than a few comedic moments). Apparently the deleted scenes have some more emotional (sad, bitter-sweet) moments. The Cap that appears in this movie, seems like he has adapted (for the most part) to the modern world (other than being befuddled by the occasional cultural reference). Even for a person with enhanced abilities, I would like to see him having difficulty in dealing with the deaths and/or old ages of people he knew from the past; his encountering of technological innovations (briefly touched upon in that scene where he says the machine runs on some kind of electricity); reaction to Rock’n’Roll, womens’ lib, fashion changes, minority civil rights, landing on the moon, etc., etc.He does comment about the world having changed, and not necessarily for the better (eg. his exchange with Coulson when discussing the modified stars’n’stripes outfit). But the audience doesn’t get to see where he got this opionion/info from. I think a Cap sequel taking place before this movie could help with this character arc. Or maybe lots of flashbacks showing these man-out-of-time moments?Richard G.

  4. Martin

    Awesome Christina. Also saw your post from Nancy’s share and have seen Avengers twice. I love what Joss did with the movie and you’re right on with the 6 things. By pointing them out you just gave me so many ideas for the novel outline I’m working on. Thanks!

      1. Kaori

        I’m not sure I saw the same movie you did. In the one I saw, Loki’s fairly coemlpx. He feels like he’s been wronged and robbed of the stature due him, he’s trying to claw his way back up to that stature, he has to prove himself to his backers, so he chooses a project that he thinks will simultaneously be fairly easy AND let him get back at his brother (whom he blames for much of this), and gets a series of nasty surprises.So I don’t think it’s so much that Loki lacks nuance as that even in a 2+ hour movie, his character’s coemlpxities are necessarily wallpaper versus those of multiple lead opponents and THEIR interactions. Because the movie isn’t really about Loki’s invading earth with an army of monsters, it’s about let’s put together a team of superheroes but we need a reason for them to get together

  5. Rish Outfield

    Wow, it never even occurred to me that it would be a conscious choice to make all the characters look different from one another. But when there are quick cuts and breakneck action going on, you need to be able to tell the difference between Hulk and Hawkeye, Loki and Cap, Black Widow and an army of cyber-organic aliens in every single instance.

    I just assumed this was so because Joss (and the studio) respected the source material, but it also serves the purpose of helping the audience keep focus and avoids confusion . . . something other films have not accomplished, be it two battling grey blurs of rotors and gears (2007), two grey cars speeding through the streets in shots seemingly composed by Paul Greengrass (2008), or two men dressed in black rolling around on the floor in shots actually composed by Paul Greengrass (2004).

    Cool article!